Project FINE uses education, engagement, to embrace energy efficiency initiatives


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As Minnesota works toward 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040, one southeastern Minnesota nonprofit organization is taking advantage of expanded clean energy funding initiatives to support its mission.

With funding from the Clean Energy Resource Team’s (CERT) Seed Grants Project and a mission to serve immigrants and refugees, Project FINE (Focus on Integrating Newcomers through Education) has made clean energy resources accessible through educational programs, translating services, and outreach efforts to determine what gaps exist.

Project FINE began as a grant-funded initiative more than 30 years ago. The organization’s mission at the time was to support the influx of a refugee Hmong community that settled into Winona.

Today, the nonprofit organization continues to serve the immigrant and refugee community, as well as Winona County as a whole, helping them navigate social and government services, youth services, and translation services in 24 languages.

“Our mission is to help refugees and immigrants adjust to the community and the U.S. and work with partners and service providers to build equity and inclusion,” said Katie van Eijl, program manager.

Their services fall into three categories—navigating community systems, building communities, and empowering youth.

According to an Immigrant and Refugee Population Estimate study completed by Project FINE using 2020 Census data, while the overall population in Winona County decreased, the number of individuals who identify as non-white or Hispanic increased from 8% to 14%, with the total immigrant and refugee population of Winona County estimated at 9,550. With the population increasing, the role Project FINE plays in the community becomes more crucial.

“Much of the immigrant and refugee population in Winona lives in mobile homes or older housing that is more likely to have a higher energy bill,” Katie said.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, utilities in mobile homes cost up to 50% more compared to regular homes of the same size and age, and mobile homeowners spend 70% more per square foot on energy.

Through a partnership with the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, Project FINE has begun embracing energy efficiency initiatives. A local county commissioner helped connect the groups as part of a seed grant offered by CERT. The objective of the seed grant is to support community-based clean energy projects in each of Minnesota CERT regions. A portion of the grants are funded by the Minnesota Department of Commerce's Division of Energy Resources.

With the funding the two groups increased access to energy efficiency resources by translating materials into Spanish and Hmong, and hosting free energy bill clinics. In 2021, 12% of the state’s population was reported to speak a language other than English, indicating an increased need for materials to be translated. During one of the energy bill clinics, they hosted a “Understanding Your Energy Bill” class. They offered individual consultations to break down residents' energy bills and help them understand on a practical level how to reduce their bill with simple energy saving tips.

Overall, Project FINE assisted 175 people. Their efforts included providing 52 families with both Hmong and Spanish versions of CERT’s Right Light Guide and other energy guides, assisting 15 families during the energy bill clinics, and hosting a presentation attended by 27 residents.

With more funding, Katie said the organization hopes to continue to expand its work and assist more immigrant and refugee families.

Having already taken action with hands-on efforts, Katie said Project FINE plans to continue to provide refugees, immigrants, and other community members with support and services to put energy efficiency initiatives to work.

Learn more about Project FINE’s work in Winona County and the surrounding Southeast Minnesota region on their website.